Picturing History: A portrait set of early English kings and queens

English kings and queens, oil on panel, 1590-1610, NPG 4980(1-16)

This portrait set of English kings and queens is one of the most important surviving sets of its type. Probably painted between 1590 and 1620, it includes portraits of English rulers from William the Conqueror (1027-87) to Mary I (1516-58). Anne Boleyn is the only non-monarch in the set and was probably included because of her importance to the Tudor dynasty as the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Made up of sixteen portraits, it is an incomplete sequence and may originally have been larger, although portrait sets of this type varied in size and did not always form a complete chronological series. The set may originally have culminated with a portrait of Elizabeth I.

Portrait sets of kings and queens and other groups of ‘worthies’ were increasingly found in long galleries and great halls throughout the Tudor period. The display of groups of portraits probably reached the height of their popularity in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Displayed in a narrative or chronological sequence, they were found in ecclesiastical, educational and civic buildings, as well as in domestic interiors. The portraits were often rapidly and cheaply produced and were based on pre-established patterns that could be transferred or copied by artists to make multiple versions. The characteristic bold colours and linear style of these paintings suggests that they may have been intended to be seen from a distance, and it is possible that many of them were displayed up high to form a decorative frieze around a room. The growing popularity of portrait sets in the sixteenth century reflects an increased interest in the history of the nation and in the people and objects of the past. Sets of kings and queens asserted the owner’s allegiance to the crown and their acceptance of the hereditary claim of the reigning monarch.

Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV

Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV

Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV

Details from Henry IV, Richard II, William I

Technical analysis on all sixteen portraits was carried out in early 2011. The results have helped to answer the following questions:

Were all sixteen portraits painted by the same artist?

Visually, it is clear from the style of the portraits in this set that they have not all been painted by one person. It was previously suggested that the portraits of William I, Henry II, and the later monarchs from Edward III onward are all by one artist, and that the portraits of Henry I, Stephen, John and Edward II are by another painter. However, technical analysis has helped to examine the techniques used for all the portraits and enabled us to identify distinctive hands at work and we now know that the set was produced by a more complex network of artists and craftsmen than previously thought.

Several portraits can be grouped together as follows: 

The ‘Crooked eye’ group

NPG 4980(2) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(3) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(5) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(6) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

The portraits of Henry I, Stephen, John and Edward II are very similar in style and it was previously suggested that they were by the same artist or workshop. The technical analysis has found strong links between these paintings. It is possible that the portraits of Stephen, John and Edward II have been painted by the same artist and that the portrait of Henry I has been painted by a second artist working in a very similar style, probably in same workshop.

The painting style and materials used are similar in all four paintings. For example, microscopic analysis of the painted surface has revealed that the flesh paint in each case has been applied with a characteristic softly blended technique. In addition, the way in which the mordant (the preparatory paint layer under the areas of gold leaf) has been applied is similar in all four portraits.

Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I

Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I

Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I

The drawing underneath the paint layers is also very similar among the portraits in this group. Infrared reflectography allows us to see that the artists have used extensive drawing to mark out the pattern before applying the paint. In general, the artist appear to have been more confident when marking out the faces, which are drawn in a less sketchy way than the costume, indicating an established pattern was employed.

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Edward II

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Edward II

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Edward II

Detail from Stephen

Detail from Stephen

In terms of their design and composition, all four portraits appear to be based on a series of woodcuts published in 1597, matching these designs more closely than others in the set (see Question 3). The portrait of Edward II has a drooping eyelid which may be an indication that this image was originally designed to represent either Henry III or Edward I, who are both recorded as having this physical feature. Like the woodcut on which it is based, Stephen has been painted with slightly crooked eyes. Some other representations of Stephen also show him with crossed eyes, although there is no documentary evidence that he looked like this in reality. It may be that all these portraits are ultimately derived from the same medieval manuscript illustration in which his eyes were depicted in this way unintentionally.  John’s eyes are also slightly crooked, possibly because the artist found it difficult to paint a face in a half-profile position.

Dating and dendrochronology
Further evidence that these portraits were produced as a group has been supplied by dendrochronology (tree-ring dating): the panel used for the portrait of Stephen is made of wood from two trees, one of which was also used to make the panel for the Edward II portrait, and the other, the portrait of John. The two boards used to make the panel for Stephen come from trees for which the earliest possible felling dates are 1585 and 1592.

The ‘Eyebrow’ group

NPG 4980(7) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(10) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(9) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(11) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(15) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Evidence from the technical analysis strongly suggests that the portraits of Edward III, Henry IV, Edward IV, Edward V and Anne Boleyn have also been produced as a group, painted by several artists working in a very similar way.

In each of these portraits, the artists have painted the eyes, lips and eyebrows in full and have then painted the flesh around these features. This is an unusual method and has resulted in distinctive bold eyebrows in each of these sitters. However, there are some differences in the way the paint has been handled, which rules out the possibility that they have all been produced by the same painter. The painting seen in the portrait of Edward IV, for example, is softer and by a more accomplished hand than that seen portrait of Edward V, which has been painted in a rather crude way. The portrait of Edward III has also been more finely painted than some of the others in the group.

Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn

Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn

Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn

Other common features of these portraits include a very thin and streaky priming layer which shows up in infared light, the use of a pale brown paint to mark out the facial features and similar brushwork. In three portraits of the group, Edward III, Henry IV and Edward V, the pigment indigo has faded considerably in the costume, causing the colours of their tunics to fade from a dark blue in the case of Henry IV, and from a purple colour in the cases of Edward III and Edward V. Remnants of the original colour can been seen at the bottom of the panels where the paint has been covered by the frame.

Detail from Henry IV showing the original blue colour of the costume
Detail from Henry IV showing the original blue colour of the costume

Dating and dendrochronology
The techniques and materials are consistent with work from the period 1590-1610. Dendrochronology has revealed that wood from the tree used to make the Edward V panel is also present in both the Edward IV and Anne Boleyn panels. The latter two also contain wood from another common tree. The wood that is present in the panels of all three paintings comes from a tree that was felled between 1589 and 1605.

Links between the portraits of William I and Henry II

Visually, the portraits of William I and Henry II look very much alike and both panels are slightly narrower than the rest of the set. The technical analysis has found that there are close parallels in the style and techniques used.

NPG 4980(1) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 4980(4) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Technique and links between workshops
There are some similarities in the way these portraits have been painted. In both cases, for example the details on the gilding have been defined with brown lines in a similar manner. However, the portrait of Henry II has been painted in a softer, less crisp way than the portrait of William, and on close examination, it does not appear to be by the same artist. The similarities, however, suggest that the artists of these portraits may have been trained in the same workshop and may have been working together as part of a team.

Photomicrographs of the gilding from William I and Henry II

Photomicrographs of the eyes from William I and Henry II

Details of jewels from Richard II and Richard III

A jewel specialist?
Although the portraits of Richard II and Richard III are stylistically different overall, the gilding and the jewels in each have been executed in a very similar way.

For both portraits the painter has used red lake and copper green glazes over gold leaf to depict the jewels, finishing with lead white highlights. The similarities indicate that one artist, perhaps a jewel specialist, was responsible for the jewellery, and possibly also the gilding, in both of these portraits. Furthermore, dendrochronology has found wood from the same tree in these two panels, indicating that they were probably made in the same workshop.

Photomicrograph of jewels from Anne Boleyn
Photomicrograph of jewels from Anne Boleyn

Jewellery in other portraits in the set also appears to have been painted by an artist skilled in this particular area. In the portrait of Anne Boleyn, for example, the jewels have been painted with a degree of quality that cannot be seen in the rest of the painting. Also, strong similarities in the way in which the jewels have been painted in the portraits of Mary I, Henry VII and Henry VIII, seemingly by an artist painting with methodical care, suggest that one artist worked on the jewels for all three portraits.


Were all sixteen portraits produced at the same time and were they always a set?

The original provenance of these portraits is not known and, as such, we cannot be absolutely certain that they were produced and acquired as a set. However, we do know that in 1898 they were hanging as a group at Hornby Castle, the Yorkshire seat of the Duke of Leeds, and it is possible that they were always in the collection there. All sixteen portraits are of a very similar size and scale, making it likely they were produced as a set, and the recent technical analysis has uncovered some strong links between them (see Question 1).

Dating of the set
When the set was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1974, it was thought that the portraits of the later monarchs (from Edward III) were painted in the 1590s, and that portraits of the early kings (possibly excluding William I and Henry II) were painted around 1620. This conclusion was reached on the basis of differences in the painting style. However,dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) has found that the wood used for all sixteen panels dates from around the same time and in all cases, could have been felled as early as the 1590s. It is not known how soon the wood was put to use after the trees were felled, but we would expect to have found more variety in the date of the wood had the portraits been painted at different times.

The dendrochronology has also found that several of the portraits have been painted on wood deriving from the same trees and distinct similarities in the construction of some of the panels have also been identified. It seems likely, therefore, that the wood for all of these panels was sourced from the same place and that the panels were made around the same time. Combined with other links between the portraits, outlined above, this evidence points to the strong likelihood that the paintings were made as a set. Portrait sets may have been assembled from paintings produced by different workshops, possibly sourced by an agent on behalf of the buyer, which might explain the subgroups within the set.

King William I (

King William I ('the Conqueror')
by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
NPG D23604

What were the sources for the portraits and how important was the concept of ‘authentic likeness’?

Tudor portraits of historical figures, including medieval kings, were largely fictional. Some were based on coins, sculpture or manuscript illustrations produced during the sitter’s lifetime, but these depictions were often generalized representations made at a time when the concept of authentic likeness was not considered greatly important. Tudor paintings of historical figures were often based on woodcuts or engravings that were designed to illustrate history books or chronicles. Multiple copies of these portraits were made and they became established ‘likenesses’ through the exchange of prints and the display of paintings.

The early kings
In this set, the portraits of the kings from William I to Edward III are fictional and appear to be derived from a series of woodcuts that were published in 1597 in a Booke Containing the True Portraiture of the Kings of England, by an author known as ‘T. T.’. Other surviving sets, such as that in the collection of Dulwich Picture Gallery dating from 1618-20, are based on a series of engravings published in 1618 by Henry Holland, entitled Baziliologia ( or Book of Kings).

Richard II, Richard III and the Tudor monarchs
For the later kings, the existence of life portraits meant that the likeness of the sitter was more accurate. Artists’ workshops would have had patterns of the portraits of famous sitters, especially kings and queens, so that multiple versions could be made. In this set, the portraits of Henry VII and Henry VIII are based on portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger and the portrait of Mary I is based on portraits by the Flemish artist Anthonis Mor. The portraits of Edward IV, Richard III and Anne Boleyn are standard portrait types by unknown artists, probably painted during their lifetimes. Unusually among the early monarchs, the portrait of Richard II can also claim to be an authentic likeness as it is derived from the full-length portrait of the king at Westminster Abbey which was painted in the 1390s, probably from life.

King Henry IV, probably by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), 1618 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry IV
probably by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
NPG D23731

The authenticity of likeness
By the later sixteenth century, there appears to have been an increased emphasis placed on the concept of ‘true likeness’ and this is reflected in the publication of several books that claimed to include ‘true portraits’ of sitters in historically accurate costume. Where a life portrait did not exist from which to copy, research to find a portrait of a contemporary or a related sitter on which to base a design appears to have been carried out. The portrait of Henry IV, for instance, relates closely to an engraving of Henry’s contemporary, King Charles VI of France, first published in 1555, particularly in the costume. Edward V’s portrait is based on life portraits of Edward VI, who was, like his earlier namesake, a child king.

By the 1620s, the engravings in Henry Holland’s Baziliologia seem to have become the most frequently used portrait types for sets of kings and queens and most of the surviving sets from this period relate closely to them. This would seem to indicate that the National Portrait Gallery set was painted before the Baziliologia was first published in 1618.